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Volume 18, Number 2March/April 1967

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Phoenix Of The Plain

Written by Daniel Da Cruz

Ancient Baalbek, lying in the shadows of the Cedars of Lebanon near the headwaters of the Leontes and Orontes rivers, bears a distinction few cities would dispute and none would envy: it has probably endured more devastation than any other city in the Middle East.

It has been repeatedly assaulted by fire, flood, earthquake, drought, pestilence, hunger, treason, the pillage of a long procession of savage hordes, and time's erosion through 2,000 years. Yet, like the mythical Egyptian bird said to live for 500 years, then to immolate itself on a pyre of aromatic woods, its hot ashes giving birth to a young phoenix, Baalbek, century after tragic century, regenerated itself on its own smoking ruins, and stoically awaited the next hammer blow of fate.

It was never far away. A fair sample of the misfortunes of this Lebanese city, for example, might include the outrage of Tughtakin, Emir of Damascus, on hearing the rumor that Baalbek was trading with his enemies, the Crusaders. He promptly set out at the head of his horsemen and in 1110 ground the walled city into submission. In 1136 his co-religionist Prince Zengi of Aleppo invested the city with a large army, brought up 14 powerful siege catapults, and bombarded the defenders day and night for three months with huge stone projectiles. The dazed survivors at last unlocked the city gates, yielded up their governor to be flayed alive for his obstinacy, and braced themselves for the orgy of rapine that was the price of surrender in those days of casual cruelty.

Still numb from the onslaught, Baalbek suffered a series of disastrous earthquakes in 1139, 1157 and 1170, in which thousands were entombed in their stone-and-mud dwellings. Exactly a decade before the third quake struck, Genghis Khan's grandson Hulagu swept in off the hot Syrian desert with his Mongol cavalry, battered down Baalbek's fortifications, and slew everything that breathed. Restored and repopulated two decades later by the Mamlukc ruler Qalun, it was flooded and almost washed away around 1320. Rounding out a century of misery, Baalbek was wiped out yet again in the year 1400 by Tamerlane the Conqueror, en route to burn Damascus and to construct a pyramid of 90,000 severed heads on the leveled site of Baghdad.

After such depredations of nature and man—and Baalbek was successively plundered or ruled by the Macedonians, Romans, Byzantine Greeks, Omayyads, Abbasids, Egyptian Toulounids, the Abbasids again, Fatamids, Crusaders, Mamelukes, the Mongols twice, Turks, Maanides, French, and finally the Lebanese themselves—a natural surmise would be that Baalbek today must be little more than a heap of dust and rubble.

Far from it. In fact, only a century after Tamerlane had done his worst, an Arab writer was able to describe Baalbek as a "city possessing a strong fortress with columns erected by Solomon, mosques, schools, fine streets, baths, gardens, rivers, all of which it would take too long to describe"—which he then proceeded to do. And today, Baalbek still possesses the most magnificent structures surviving the Roman Empire, unexcelled in size and elegance even by the remaining monuments in Rome itself.

Ironically, the massive grandeur of the ruins at Baalbek have all but obliterated their raison d'etre, the greater glory of the pagan gods which had been worshipped on that spot beyond the memory of man. So little is known of the pre-Roman temple area on which the mighty Roman edifices stand that even the origin of the name "Baalbek" is a matter of lively footnote-war. Some scholars contend that Baalbek comes from the Phoenician words baal—Sun God or Lord (as in the name of the Carthaginian general Hannibal, "The Favor of the Lord") and Beka'a, the name of the high, fertile plateau between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges where it lies. Others maintain that baal has been united with bek, the Phoenician word for "city," which is precisely the translation the Greeks gave to the name Baalbek centuries later—Heliopolis.

Whether the ancients called it the "Lord of the Beka'a" or the "City of the Sun," Baalbek was doubtless the center of a cult built around the veneration of the Syrian god Baal-Hadad, whom the French antiquarian Dussand described as the "God of Thunder, Tempest, Torrential Rains ... who assures good crops and the perpetuity of springs." Baal-Hadad's consort was Atargatis, and according to the animistic beliefs of the people, who worshipped trees, hewn posts, animals and stone cairns as the "abode of the gods," the association of these male and female divinities was the source of all fecundity and life. The details of the pagan rituals are obscure, but there are indications that in early times human sacrifice was practiced, and ritual prostitution was certainly a feature of the pre-Christian cults.

In the absence of any basis of solid fact on which to reconstruct Baalbek's pre-Roman past, a mass of plausible conjecture and outright guesswork have had to substitute for history. Yet repetition and their very longevity have given such speculations a certain specious authority, and until archeologists have burrowed deeper among the ruins, an aura of romantic inaccuracy will inevitably surround Baalbek's beginnings. According to one Arab legend, for instance, Baalbek was one of the world's earliest cities; the late Maronite Patriarch Istfan Doweihi likewise noted that "tradition states that the fortress of Baalbek is the most ancient building in the world. Cain, the son of Adam, built it in the year 133 of the creation, during a fit of raving madness. He gave it the name of his son Enoch and peopled it with giants who were punished for their iniquities by the Flood," This engaging story possibly influenced the Arab historian Zakaria El-Qazwini, who asserted that at Baalbek "one can find the castle of Solomon, a building dedicated to Abraham, and a convent of Saint Elijah."

If nothing else, such legends suggest Baalbek's great antiquity, but its history properly begins with its capture by Alexander the Great, on his way from Egypt to defeat King Darius of Persia on the plains of Gaugamela. lieliopolis, as the town was forthwith named, became after Alexander's death a provincial administrative center ruled in turn by the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, before being conquered by Pompey at the head of Roman legions in 63 B.C. The Romans restored the name Baalbek, and cannily traded on the pagan superstitions of the Syrians by recognizing and supporting the local dieties in return for peaceful submission to Roman rule. The names of the gods themselves, however, were subtly transformed by the Romans to correspond with those in the state religion of Rome: Baal-Hadad became Jupiter, the nature goddess Atargatis became Venus, and Mercury, who seems to have no local Semitic counterpart, was added to the Roman pantheon to complete what scholars have come to call the "Heliopolitan Triad."

The Baalbek of Roman times must have been a welcome haven to the battle-stained troops of Pompey. Sheltered fropn Mediterranean sea marauders by precipitous Mount Lebanon, from the chariot-mounted Persian hordes by the Anti-Lebanon mountains on the East, Baalbek under Roman administration was an island of peace and commerce at the northern tip of the Beka'a plateau. Being midway between the Mediterranean port of Beirut and the desert capital of Damascus, it dominated that vital east-west lifeline of commerce; in like manner did it straddle the north-south caravan routes, which swung up from the frankincense country of Saba (Biblical Sheba) through central Arabia, to Nabataean Petra in what is now Jordan, thence through Baalbek to Palmyra, Asia Minor and Europe. More than half a mile above sea level, the air in Baalbek was clean and crisp, mercifully free of that miasma which the ancients believed causes the dreaded malaria which decimated the selfsame legions in Egypt, Cyprus and Rome itself. At Baalbek was a perpetual spring, the Ras El-Ain, which could sustain the city through a siege, however protracted, and the valley—75 miles long and four to six miles wide—grew an abundance of fruit and grain for the city's large garrison. Only rarely did the Romans find a site more naturally adapted to their military, commercial and political designs, and they determined to make their conquest permanent by constructing there a religious center of such strength and majesty that it would be immune from the assaults of armed multitudes and infidels alike. They very nearly succeeded, and parts of the buildings they erected have outlived all their many conquerors.

Started at the beginning of the Christian era, when paganism was actually on the wane, the temples of Baalbek took more than three centuries to complete. The Emperors Hadrian, Trajan, Antoninus Pious, Septimus Severus, Gordianus, Caracalla—all these and others involved themselves in the construction of the temples, whose proportions were rivaled in ancient times only by the uninspiring, unimaginative bulk of the pyramids. Most of the building stone came from the environs of Baalbek itself, but some of the columns were apparently quarried on the Egyptian shores of the Red Sea, hauled by sledges to the Nile, transhipped from Alexandria to Lebanon, and dragged over the mountains to Baalbek.

Such logistical marvels are entirely consistent with the heroic dimensions of Baalbek. The Temple of Jupiter was under construction from A.D. 10 until 249, a period easily exceeding that of the United States' nationhood. The temple's main court stands some 70 feet above the surrounding plain, and is more than 380 feet on each side. The staircase to the temple itself is 175 feet wide and is built in three separate stages. Its Corinthian columns, which originally numbered 54, are made of three limestone drums which were held together by cores of iron or bronze set in lead; each is 7½ feet in diameter and 65 feet high from base to capital (by contrast, those of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. are but 44 feet high). On three sides of the temple is a terrace built of gigantic blocks of stone, three of which, called the "Trilithon" by awestruck provincials, comprise a single course of the west wall. Each measures 63 by 14 by 11 feet and weighs some 800 tons.

The buildings at Baalbek have moved Sir Mortimer Wheeler, one of the world's foremost archeologists, to comment that:

"The crowning gift of the Roman Empire to architecture was magnitude. The 'little' temple of the so-called acropolis of Roman Baalbek is bigger than the Pantheon in Rome. The temples of Baalbek owe nothing of their quality to such new-fangled aids as concrete. They stand passively upon the largest hewn stones in the world, and some of their columns are the tallest from antiquity." Sir Mortimer also praises the temple's "slender Corinthian columns carried up to an encrusted architrave, through two stages of niches with semi-circular and pedimental heads, frames for vanished statuary; its dramatic dais on which stood the figure of the deity beneath a baldachin that was certainly of equal splendor. Look too at the quality of all this finery, its superb carving, and the sensibility with which it is gently disciplined by the rigid frames and flutings. Mere is a masterpiece. Baalbek remains one of the very great monuments in the history of European architecture."

The Temple of Jupiter, being the largest of Baalbek's buildings, has been the favored target of vandals down through the years. Some columns were pulled down by plunderers merely for the sake of the iron-and-bronze cores which held them together. Others were felled by earthquakes. But since an earthquake bowled over three of the columns in 1759 nothing—not even the heavy tremor of 1956 which wrecked scores of Lebanese homes—has been powerful enough to disturb the remaining six, which are so familiar a national institution that they even appear on the country's one-lira banknotes.

Luckier still has been the edifice usually called the "Temple of Bacchus," which archeologists believe was actually consecrated to Venus. Small only by comparison to the nearby Temple of Jupiter, the Temple of Bacchus measures 225 by 110 feet, has a portico bordered by 15 62-foot columns on the long sides and eight on the ends, and a monumental staircase of 33 steps which leads to one of the most gigantic portals ever built. Forty-two and a half feet high, the gate to the temple is carved on jamb and lintel with egg-and-dart designs, flowing patterns of geometrical figures, garlands, vines, and crowds of nymphs, pans, cupids, fawns and sprites in riotous bacchanal. On the high ceiling of the adjacent porticos are incised scenes from classical mythology: Vulcan with his hammer, Diana and her sheaf of arrows, Tyche with a cornucopia, Ceres with ears of corn, and Bacchus with a wreath of grapes. The figure of Bacchus also appears within the temple in the holy of holies, in two separate sculptured representations flanking the now-empty niche where the figure of the temple's god reposed. The presence of Bacchus' statues, together with the presumed removal of the divinity Venus, accounts for the temple being wrongly ascribed to Bacchus.

Further confusing the question of identification, there is another building called the Temple of Venus, quite different in character from Baalbek's other monuments, which stands near the entrance of the acropolis. It too has a monumental staircase, but the plan of the temple is round instead of rectangular, and unlike the rest, faces north instead of east. What remains is of modest dimensions, its curvilineal form certainly suggestive of a structure dedicated to a goddess rather than a god. Yet the argument for calling it the Temple of Venus is somewhat thin. As British archeologist G. Lankester Harding points out, the effaced figures have "been interpreted as being the dove of Venus, Venus rising from a shell and so on," but their damaged condition makes this interpretation doubtful, and in any case "the 'dove' really does look rather more like an eagle."

Considerably more puzzling than the identity of the structures that remain is the silence of history on Baalbek itself. Coins of the reign of Philip the Arab bear a representation of the Temple of Jupiter, and both John Malala of Antioch in the 6th century and Paschal the Chronicler in the 7th describe the city, but most other contemporary historians fail even to mention its name. Even Gibbon, in his 3,000-page masterpiece on the Roman decline and fall, which covers the period and area with unparalleled thoroughness, makes but one passing reference to Baalbek, in describing the progress of Tamerlane through Syria.

Aside from medieval war reportage, Baalbek was little noted nor long remembered until recent times. Church history informs us that the Temple of Venus (that of the "doves") was transformed into a church dedicated to St. Barbara by the first Christian Emperor of Rome, Constantine the Great. Somewhat later, the Emperor Theodosius ordered the systematic destruction of Baalbek and other pagan temples throughout the Roman Empire, but to what extent the present damage may be attributed to this edict, to earthquakes, and to later man-made havoc, no one can say. The Christian hegemony over Baalbek was, in any case, historically fleeting, lasting from 330 until Islam conquered the whole of Syria in 637. Churches at Baalbek were promptly converted to mosques, and even the red marble columns removed from Baalbek to adorn the Hagia Sophia by order of the Emperor Justinian, became Moslem property with the capture of Constantinople in 1453. The Moslem conquest deprived Baalbek of its significance as a religious center, for Islam's holy cities of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem completely overshadowed it. Perhaps with a small sigh of relief, Baalbek settled down to the relative peace of a comfortable obscurity during the long (almost 500 years) reign of the Ottoman Turks.

It might still be all but forgotten had not an energetic group of Lebanese, determined to remind the world of its ancient glories, created an annual festival of music and drama among the ruins. Modest at first but increasingly ambitious, the Baalbek International Festival now attracts tourists as well as artists from five continents every summer. The program of 1964, which included in the same three-month season, the Comedie Francaise, the Royal Ballet—with Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev—and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is indicative of the variety of programming which is the Festival's special pride.

On festival evenings under the stars (it never rains in Baalbek during the summer), the road across the mountains from Beirut 53 miles away, is a sinuous ribbon of light as long lines of car speed to the Festival. Those who leave early enough sometimes stop briefly just before Baalbek to see the "Stone of the Pregnant Woman," so called because of its reputed power to confer fertility upon women who stand on it. The largest stone ever cut, it outweighs, at some 2,000 tons, World War II ocean-going destroyers. Because, apparently, its architects despaired of ever moving it, the stone lays forlornly where it was quarried. Plainly visible from the quarry are the six illuminated columns of the Temple of Jupiter rising out of the Beka'a plain, and the concert-goers hurry toward them through the gathering dusk of Baalbek in time to make the 8:30 curtain. Their steps take them through an eerie, dimly lit passageway 5¼ yards wide and 130 yards long, through which in pagan times sacrificial processions moved, to emerge in the temple area where the concerts and plays are presented.

Baalbek's monumental setting dwarfs spectator, who cannot but reflect on the insubstantiality of his being and the brevity of his span, when confronted with the stone evidence of Baalbek's ageless endurance around him. The feeling is eerily fortified during the last scene of. Amphitryon in which Jupiter, having through impersonation enjoyed both the life and the wife of Amphitryon, General of the Thebans, prepares to ascend once more to Mount Olympus. Scene opens with a roll of thunder across the darkened Temple of Bacchus, whose stairway serves as a stage. Far away to the right, on the high wall of the Main Court, the figure of Jupiter suddenly appears in a burst of light, framed against the columns of the Temple of Jupiter in the distant background. His amplified voice booms out:

"Arise from the dark sorrows that have engulfed your heart!
Let calming waters quench the fires seething within you
For I shall make you the envy of the world.
So boldly flatter yourself on your future good fortune;
The word of Jupiter is the decree of destiny!"

Hearing such resounding sentiments, is it a wonder that the theatergoer insensibly imagines that they are addressed to indomitable Baalbek itself, or wistfully hopes that in some mysterious fashion they may possess the power of prophecy?

Daniel da Cruz, a correspondent and novelist, is a frequent contributor to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 3-9 of the March/April 1967 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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